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Singer and the fear of genetic inequality
George Dvorsky   Sep 20, 2006   Sentient Developments  

Renowned Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer has penned an OpEd for the Guardian in which he warns of the unintended consequences of genetic enhancement as they would emerge in free market societies. In the article, titled “The Costly Appliance of Science,” Singer expresses his concern that humanity is about to take a bite out of the genetic apple—fruit that has emerged as a result of our ever-developing sciences. Like nuclear physics, he argues, the genetic modification of humans may produce some dangerous risks.

I normally agree with Singer by default; no other bioethicist has impacted on my own sense of ethics and morality quite like Singer. But as far as his arguments in this article go, I think Singer has both overstated and over-generalized the perils of human genetic enhancement. I dare say that at times he sounds like someone who has not considered all the factors and issues involved.

Singer, who imparts a certain degree of alarm in the article, does concede that germinal choice may bring desired results and understands its appeal. Moreover, he acknowledges that germinal choice in liberal societies is qualitatively distinguished from eugenics —- the practice wherein the state (or an influential group) coercively enforces a predetermined set of acceptable genetic modifications, often for a desired social end. Instead, Singer claims that genetic enhancements “will be the outcome of parental choice and the workings of the free market.” Consequently, “if it leads to healthier, smarter people with better problem-solving abilities that will be a good thing,” he writes.

What worries Singer, however, is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Specifically, he worries about increasing socioeconomic stratification and potential “arms races,”—the notion that parents will have to modify their children in such a way as to keep a step ahead of other modified children lest they fall behind and become less capable of competing and functioning within society.

Singer is correct to worry about the onset of genetic arms races—it is a legitimate concern in bioethics. Parents and their fertility doctors will have to grapple with those types of modifications that blur the line between primary and positional goods.

Strangely, however, Singer poses a rather strange argument to make his point about arms races. Singer cites the observation that taller individuals tend to have higher salaries. Parents, therefore, will likely want to have tall children (this exact example is debatable, but let’s give Singer the benefit of the doubt). The consequence, claims Singer, is that such a trend would have a detrimental environmental impact due to the increased costs in the “additional consumption required to fuel larger human beings.”

This is a surprisingly weak (and even silly) argument coming from an ethics giant like Peter Singer. Arms races may most certainly result in some unintended morphological and cognitive consequences, but the assertion that it will be a drain on the environment is rather uncompelling. It is generally acknowledged that food production is not a problem today – it’s the lack of will and compassion to distribute our overabundance that’s the issue.

Further, what Singer has failed to mention is the leveling-off effect and equalization impacts of genetic modifications. Again, I agree that access to genetic biotechnologies is the fundamental problem here, but assuming that a high degree of universal accessibility is attainable, it’s reasonable to assume that arms races will eventually temper off and in its wake be replaced by sets of individuals with greater genetic equality.

In regards to the socioeconomic problem of genetic augmentation, Singer argues that the most alarming implication of genetic selection is that only the rich will be able to afford it. “The gap between rich and poor, already a challenge to our ideas of social justice, will become a chasm that mere equality of opportunity will be powerless to bridge,” writes Singer, “That is not a future that any of us should approve.”

This is a common criticism levied at the prospect of genetic enhancement. What is absent from nearly all of these arguments, however, is the realization that we already live in a world of gross socioeconomic discrepancies, favouritism, undue privilege, prejudice and disempowerment. I challenge Singer and other ethicists to confront those individuals, institutions and practices that perpetuate these problems with the same vigor with which they choose to attack the prospect of enhancement biotechnologies – while at the same time fully acknowledging the devastating impact of stifling the development of beneficial health technologies.

I fully understand that Singer is in fact acknowledging today’s gap between the rich and poor. What I take issue with is the assertion that germinal choice technologies will make this situation worse. I would like to see some real data (or some compelling arguments) that will demonstrate just how and why greater privilege will be afforded to those who already have undue amounts of privilege.

Furthermore, Singer’s analysis, like so many others, fails to assess the long-term accessibility prospects of genomic technologies; eventually, the costs of all technologies bottoms out and as a result become widely accessible. The problem is in the short-term, not the long-term.

Ultimately, however, Singer believes that a future of increased social stratification will be difficult to avoid, “for it will require that selection for genetic enhancement is either available to no one or accessible to everyone.” Singer remains the staunch egalitarian. He writes:

But avoiding this outcome will not be easy, for it will require that selection for genetic enhancement is either available to no one or accessible to everyone. The first option would require coercion, and - since countries will not accept that others should gain a competitive edge - an international agreement to forego the benefits that genetic enhancement can bring. The second option, universal access, would require an unprecedented level of social assistance for the poor, and extraordinarily difficult decisions about what to subsidise.

The second option is far more palatable than the first, but it shouldn’t be cast into such an incredulous light. If I might read between the lines here, and at the same time give Singer credit where credit is due, this is his clarion call for improved access to healthcare. He is issuing a warning about the consequences of a genetic revolution monopolized by those who are financially better off.

And on this point I agree. It is important that we get universal healthcare systems ramped up to include augmentative technologies as soon as possible. I believe that genomic technologies will eventually fall into the hands of most people around the globe. The struggle will be to have this happen as quickly and fairly as possible.

At the same time, however, let’s not get hysterical about the whole thing.

 


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George Dvorsky
George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.



COMMENTS

I read your article and i have to Agree and Disagree on some points. First i would like to suggest a median between singers to choices of either not engaging Germinal choice tech or providing it to every one. Why couldn’t you engage it but put restrictions on some of the traits that could be altered. For instance let the science prevent diseases and disorders , but not other traits like height of body type.

Singer’s argument about the effects of wanting tall children is indeed “weak and even silly,” and Dvorsky could have just stated so without misquoting Singer. I’ve pointed out the differences in caps:

SINGER: Since above-average height correlates with above-average income, and there is clearly a genetic component to height, IT IS NOT FANCIFUL TO IMAGINE couples choosing to have taller children. The outcome COULD be a genetic “arms race” that leads to taller and taller children


DVORSKY: Singer cites the observation that taller individuals tend to have higher salaries. Parents, THEREFORE, WILL LIKELY want to have tall children (this exact example is debatable, but let’s give Singer the benefit of the doubt). The consequence, claims Singer, is that such a trend WOULD have a detrimental environmental impact due to the increased costs in the “additional consumption required to fuel larger human beings.”

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